Gaming the Six-Week Election Day

Early voting has transformed political campaigning. Here’s how it may play out in Iowa, Nevada, and North Carolina.

Battleground 2016: The Power of Early Voting

Election Day starts this week. Beginning on Sept. 23, any Minnesotan can go to a local election office and complete an absentee ballot. The following Thursday, voters in neighboring Iowa have the same opportunity. Between Oct. 20-24, North Carolina, Nevada, and Florida get in the game. In Colorado, the entire election will be conducted by mail ballot. By the constitutionally mandated first Tuesday after a Monday in November, more than one-third of Americans will have already voted for president.

There are still battleground states that make no provision for early voting—Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New Hampshire stand out for their old-fashioned ways—but in those that do it has created a new kind of electoral arms race. Early voting is a particular gift to well-organized, well-funded campaigns, which can extend their turnout operations across as long as six weeks, locking down precise factions of the electorate in domino-like fashion, and sequence their persuasion efforts with a clear view of who has yet to vote. Building on the ground-game innovations of President Barack Obama’s two successful efforts, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has reshuffled its entire org chart with the election timetable in mind, grouping early-voting states together so that get-out-the-vote efforts can happen on an accelerated, exacting schedule.

The extended calendar poses an array of new tactical questions: Does the campaign push its most committed supporters to cast ballots as soon as possible, so that they are banked early and the campaign can shift to mobilizing less likely voters as Election Day approaches? Or do they assume that habitual voters will get around to it on their own timetable, and use the early period to expand efforts focused on those who need an extra nudge to turn out? Caching early votes has one other benefit: it limits the risk that an October surprise could swing one’s supporters away, or keep fickle voters home.

Republican strategists have been contending with many of the same issues, although Donald Trump does not appear to have directly integrated their thinking into his campaign plans. Notoriously slow to get organized in individual states—where he has a fraction of the offices, staff, and volunteers exhibited by the Clinton campaign juggernaut—Trump has largely outsourced his turnout operation to a web of state-by-state GOP offices. In many cases they have their own clearly defined strategies, developed over several cycles, including many non-presidential years with very different electorates.

early vote share comparison

In Ohio, for instance, where nearly one-third of votes were cast before Election Day in 2012, the Republican Party tries to maximize the share of party loyalists who vote early. Every day starting on Oct. 12, the state’s 88 counties release lists of voters who have cast ballots in person or requested them by mail. Those who have already voted are immediately dropped from the Republicans’ future persuasion and get-out-the-vote programs, allowing the party to shift resources elsewhere. At the same time, the party matches the names of those who have requested ballots against its preselected target voters, ones who might be undecided. Those voters get a piece of campaign literature in the mail. “The plan is it arrives the same day as your absentee ballot,” said Katie Eagan, the party’s executive director. County officials also announce which voters have returned theirs, and the party nudges those who appear to possess “stale absentee ballots”—those untouched after 10 days—with a reminder by phone call. “We want to make sure our ripe targets are voting absentee and voting early,” Eagan said.

Trump’s team contends that he is a nontraditional candidate who doesn’t need a normal campaign and can rely on others to pick up the heavy lifting for him. But in so doing, he pins his early-voting hopes on an infrastructure that is built to mobilize voters who will punch the entire Republican ticket, down to county coroner. This may be all Trump needs to turn out party loyalists. But in early-voting states where his only plausible arithmetic requires him to reach beyond the Republican base, Trump’s reliance on others to pick his targets may put him at a disadvantage. The coming weeks may quantify it, as early-voting hauls offer the first clear indicator of whether the organizational disparities between the Trump and Clinton operations will have an impact on actual votes.

IA partisan early voting

Democrats have rocked the early vote in Iowa for four presidential cycles. Jeff Link, the 2000 state director for Al Gore’s campaign, recalls a big push to get unreliable voters, whom they affectionately dubbed “No-Nos”—Democratic-leaning Iowans who have never voted in primaries or general elections—to the polls. That year, Gore eked out a 4,000-vote victory. “We’ve always won the election before Election Day,” said Link, whose firm is not doing any work for the Clinton campaign.

IA pie chart

Early voting tends to filter the electorate: candidates will find they are speaking to different voters in the first week of November than in the last week of September. This year, nearly half of the Democrats’ most reliable voters are expected to turn out before Election Day, compared to roughly a third of their opponents’. Iowa Republicans have crept gingerly into the early vote game, but most of their support comes from traditional Election Day voters. The reason is simple: the structural makeup of Iowa’s electorate is such that Republicans are less reliant on the turnout boost. They start with a 72,000-vote advantage in their coalition, including a large base of reliable base voters and enough get-out-the-vote (GOTV) targets that they technically could have enough targets to win without tapping the state’s pool of 138,000 persuadable voters who are likeliest to turn out.

IA Arithmetic (1)

The expected turnout math in Iowa this year suggests Clinton will need to secure support from at least a majority of those persuadables, more than two-thirds of whom live in the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids media markets. She’ll be aided in this strategy by her party’s ground-game success over the past decade converting infrequent voters into early voters. That should make it easier for Democrats to bank votes before Election Day: they have 38,000 more early voters among their GOTV targets than the Republicans. (Nineteen percent of Democratic GOTV targets this year voted early in 2012.) If Clinton’s strategists can clear out those targets early, they can shift more time and resources in the campaign’s final stages to reaching undecided Iowans.

Obama locked up 49 percent of his vote in Iowa early four years ago, helping him decisively win the state. This year, Clinton will have a tougher climb—she must secure at least half of her total win number before Election Day, 60 percent of the overall early vote, for any chance to carry the Hawkeye State. Winning October is a Democratic imperative partly because of the fear that just because someone has been a steady early voter each cycle doesn’t mean she will definitely step into a voting booth on Election Day unprompted. “We can’t take that risk,” Link said.

NV partisan early voting

Nevada has cultivated a reputation for making early voting easy—residents can register online, including via cellphone app, and grocery stores routinely display voting booths just down from the bread aisle. Convenience also informs the calendar: Nevada’s two and a half weeks of early voting stretches over three weekends. In that condensed time, around 60 percent of all Silver State voters are likely to cast ballots. 

Trump has seen favorable polls here, but the composition of the state’s roughly 1.6 million voters—more than 70 percent of whom live in and around Las Vegas—should daunt him. Republicans start with a larger base, but Democrats have far more GOTV targets, and early voting improves the chances that a methodical campaign can reach them. Turning them out will largely depend on Clinton’s ability to mobilize young voters between the ages of 18 and 34, which make up a third of all GOTV Democrats. She’ll also need to maximize her support among Hispanic voters, who make up around 15 percent of total voters expected to turnout in the state, but represent more than a quarter of Democrats who need extra encouragement from campaigns to show up at the polls.

If Clinton’s team turns out a high number of these groups—and she will receive substantial help from Harry Reid’s political machine, which aims to keep his seat in Democratic hands—she will be well on her way to collecting Nevada’s six Electoral College votes.

NV Arithmetic

Trump’s climb looks steeper, at least by traditional GOP standards. He will have to turn out every Republican on his campaign’s list of targets, who are less likely to take advantage of early voting than Clinton’s. Thirty-five percent of the GOP base waited until Election Day four years ago, compared to only 29 percent of the Democratic base. Trump would still need to win a large chunk of persuadables, nearly two-thirds of whom are experienced early voters. Otherwise, to reach the win number, he will have to get Democrats to defect from Clinton.

NV pie  chart

Trump’s campaign has some reasons for optimism. Among his potential targets would be nearly 50,000 gun owners among the state’s Democratic base. If Trump enticed just a fifth of them, it's possible for him to win Nevada with less than half of its persuadable voters. Even though any path will require Trump to win the state through persuasion, he is not currently airing any television ads there. (He had begun to ramp up his advertising in Nevada early in September, but appeared to suddenly cease it this past week.) Clinton, meanwhile, looks to have spent more than $600,000 there last week for a total of $5.4 million.

NC early voting by race

The most important moment of Clinton’s North Carolina campaign probably came on Aug. 31, when the Supreme Court restored a week of voting, beginning Oct. 20, which the Republican-led legislature had struck from the calendar. (An appeals court had ruled that the law, which also included provisions requiring voters to present identification and pre-registering teenagers ahead of their 18th birthdays, had been drafted to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”)

Those restored seven days have proven crucial to the math that makes Democrats newly competitive in North Carolina, where Obama won in 2008, and lost by only 100,000 votes in 2012: more than one-tenth of the votes Clinton needs to win will come from African-Americans who cast ballots during the equivalent period in 2012. During that week, African-Americans make up one-third of the electorate even though they amount to only 23 percent of registrants statewide.

NC pie chart

In North Carolina, about half of this year’s likely electorate is past early voters, but they are unevenly distributed by both race and partisanship. Two-thirds of the Democratic base has taken advantage of the state’s generous early-voting rules, while only 57 percent of Republican base voters have. Given that Democrats have a large enough coalition to push her well beyond the win number—more than half of Clinton’s GOTV targets are African-American—Clinton’s campaign is likely to try to mobilize as many of them as early as possible. If polls continue to show her relatively strong here, Clinton could know well before Election Day that she has banked enough votes to win, and shift her late spending to other states where she has still has to win over persuadables.

NC Arithmetic

There is a Republican path to victory here almost exclusively through mobilization, but Trump’s apparent neglect of a ground organization—at the end of August he had just one field office in the state—suggests he is not trying to win that way. Instead, he will hope that the state party, which has both an incumbent governor and senator on the ballot, turns out some of those GOTV targets. But if only half of them end up voting, Trump will find there are not enough persuadables to reach his win number. He will have to penetrate the Democratic base, the same kinds of voters he’s aiming for in states like Nevada and Pennsylvania. Two thirds of the Democratic faithful in North Carolina votes before Election Day, which means that Trump has no time time to waste.

This is the second in a series of eight Battlegrounds 2016 stories on the unique arithmetic that governs presidential elections in battleground states. Ohio voter math was covered in the first story in the series, and Arizona and Colorado math will be covered in a subsequent story. Read more about how the battleground game is played.


—With assistance from Andre Tartar.